Question of the Week: 4/4-4/10/16


Here’s another QotW from Phill Greenwalt: Lee supposedly said, “If he [Grant] gets there [James River] it will become a siege and then it will be a mere question of time.” Do you agree with this sentiment or did Lee still have options?

20 Responses to Question of the Week: 4/4-4/10/16

  1. Overwhelming strength of the Union army at this point probably suggested to Lee that he would have to stretch his lines ever farther westward in order to prevent a breach of his right flank. Sooner or later that flank would fail as the Union moved in more and more troops westward. The BEST Lee could hope was a siege (which I suspect he knew he would lose).

  2. Lee had no choice. By the start of the Overland Campaign, three years of aggressive warfare by the Army of Northern Virginia had depleted the South’s manpower. And Lee finally faced an opponent – Grant – who kept up constant and bloody pressure on him. Lee no longer faced patsies like McClellan, Pope, Burnside and Hooker.

    During the last year of the war, Lee launched major offensives only twice – at the Wilderness and Fort Stedman. Both were failures that cost his army thousands of casualties he could not afford.

    Grant’s brilliant flanking movement that brought the Army of the Potomac from Cold Harbor to the outskirts of Petersburg (although tactical blunders caused Grant’s army to fail to occupy the city itself) marked the eventual doom of the South. And Lee knew it.

    1. I agree. By way of follow up, I believe that this statement by Lee to Early was made in June, 1864 when the armies had danced to Cold Harbor. By that point Lee had suffered irreparable casualties (e.g. 17% at the Wilderness alone). His army probably was no longer an offensive weapon on May 5 but any capacity it had in that area was completely gone by June. In particular, his officer corps was wrecked by the time Gettysburg, Bristoe, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania had been fought. He had no options but to hunker down and hope that the North decided that its losses weren’t worth the continuing effort. As you point out below, dispatching Early was a bit of a sideshow and its primary intent was to cause Grant to divert some of his forces away from Petersburg.

  3. Lee knew the reality of the situation of a siege at Petersburg, but he also continued to make options available to himself. The biggest example being Jubal Early’s invasion of Maryland in July, 1864. Depending on sources, Early had 15-20,000 troops marching North. It started with Lee sending Early to help secure Lynchburg in the middle of June. After Early’s victory at Lynchburg, Lee could have called him back to help at Petersburg, but he didn’t, he gave Early the choice to move North. Beyond green-lighting an invasion, Lee also planned a quick strike to try and free the POWs at Point Lookout. While that mission was a dud, Early’s invasion came extremely close to actually getting into Washington, DC. Lee was down in the summer of 1864, but he certainly wasn’t out.

    1. Ryan:
      While Early’s raid toward Washington was a fine little adventure that caused much heartburn for Lincoln and Stanton, it was merely a side show. After the Wilderness, Lee’s options were zilch.

      Until mid-1863, most of Lee’s campaigns aimed at destroying all or a huge part of the Army of the Potomac, i.e. Seven Days, Bull Run II, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg. After the Wilderness, Lee never tried such an ambitious move again.

      I think you’ll agree that in his wildest dreams, Lee never viewed Early’s raid as an attempt to destroy all or a large part of Grant’s army. In fact, Early’s raid ended up backfiring on the South.

      Three Union victories in the fall of 1864 ensured Lincoln’s re-election, which in turn ensured the South would lose the war. Prompted by Early’s raid, Grant ordered Sheridan into the Shenandoah. And Sheridan’s subsequent destruction of Early’s army was one of the three victories that stiffened Northern resolve and led to Lincoln’s re-election. (The other two victories, of course, were Atlanta and Mobile Bay.)

  4. I know trying to psychoanalyze Lee is pretty hopeless, but sometimes I wonder if Lee actually did know he was pretty much out of options. We can look at maps, troop counts, and we know what actually did happen, but Lee is still Lee, and he keeps fighting, even with an almost literal skeleton force. He was terribly ill at times, but refused to give up command, he seemed shocked at one point to find out how few soldiers he had left in his army (I am thinking he didn’t get out much . . .) and, from what I read, sometimes he was just stubborn and refused to see reality. How does one handle such a situation? Our ideas, 150 years later, seem sort of hollow.

  5. What Lee should have said was “If we fire on Ft. Sumter, it will be a mere question of time.”

  6. I have to agree with Ryan. Lee played all the cards he could, but once Grant got below the James and pinned the Army of Northern Virginia to the trenches (or the close proximity thereof), that was effectively it.

    The Army of Northern Virginia started the 1864 campaign with two strengths: mobility and the ability to concentrate striking power. By killing Confederates Grant removed the latter, while he took care of the former by dictating Lee’s operations and pinning him in Petersburg.

    The Seven Days and its prelude are instructive here. Lee sent Early into the Valley to threaten Washington and reduce pressure (and Federal numbers) at Richmond, as Jackson so successfully did in 1862. Also in 1862, Lee established his front forward of the Richmond defenses to preserve his mobility and freedom of action against McClellan; Grant pinned him in the works in 1864 and denied Lee both.

  7. “If we fire on the Redcoats at Lexington it is merely a question of time.” But it didn’t work out that way, The weak cannot win but the strong can quit. That was the only option Lee had in 1864; make the war so costly that morale in the North would collapse. Think about the political and social situation in the spring of 1864 and Lee’s ( and the Confederacy’s) remaining option was at least still in play.

    1. I agree with you Professor. However, I do believe that Lee realized from the very beginning that the South’s chances of victory were quite slim – even within the scenario you describe. But we also know that while Lee fought long and hard for victory, he had things other than victory motivating him. That is a fundamental that I believe many moderns fail (are unable?) to grasp.

  8. After Gettysburg the Confederacy’s chances for victory shifted from strategic to political. Lee handled the Overland Campaign and the siege of Richmond/Petersburg just right, using what he had left to preserve the existence of his army and to set the field for stalemate, to buy that time. Politically, the war was won in the West (south?) when Sherman obliterated their base. Up until September, Lincoln did not believe he could be re-elected and if such was the case, it meant possible Confederate victory was always hovering on the horizon. The war ended Nov. 8, 1864. It just took a year for it to play out.

  9. Gen, Lee knowing full well of his material assets declining steadily and that time was a more powerful enemy then the union army even under Grant., Perhaps hoped that a long siege would wear down the morale of the union in despair of ever winning this war. A union officer noting the equipment on fallen rebel troops remarked ‘ How desperately in earnest must such a people be,who, after foreign supplies are exhausted,depend on their own fabrics rather then submit’ Also we need to remember how slow news from other fronts was received.. Thus affecting decisions .at hand.
    Lastly Gen. Lee attitude when trying to still hook up with Gen. Johnson in the south for a longer prolong war . . I can still win this thing .if only if. {my words not his. } wish he of wrote a memoir.

  10. I think Lee foresaw the rapid loss of his options to maneuver once Grant was south of the James and this was more important in his mind than his immediate materiel needs. He’d fought most of the war outnumbered and in the short term, it didn’t intimidate him. North of the river, he could threaten Washington and Grant’s supply lines by moving to his (Lee’s) left. Such maneuvers had always worked against the Army of the Potomac in the past. Throughout 1862 and 1863, Lee had maneuvered around the AoP’s right. which brought him closer to Washington, pulled the AoP away from Richmond, and threatened serious damage to the AoP by possibly cutting its supply lines. The AoP reacted consistently each time regardless of who was in command: stay between the Army of Northern Virginia and Washington.

    Once the Army of the Potomac moved south of the river, the roles would be reversed (assuming Lee knew Grant would be supplied by sea). Lee had to join Grant south of the river to protect Richmond and his own supply lines. Lee knew it. Grant knew it, which is why he wasn’t initially as concerned about Early’s raid as the Lincoln administration back in Washington. Since Lee had learned by the time of the quote that Grant would not be chased away by battle, and his own options to maneuver were limited, a siege was the logical outcome. That’s where materiel issues would have really come into play. I suspect Lee, like Grant, saw all of this at the same time in his mind, which is what made them both extraordinary generals.

    Just thinking it through, I wonder if McClellan wouldn’t have been better off south of the James as well. His outlook probably required him to advance up the Peninsula to protect both flanks with water and precluded a maneuver campaign, but his choice also simplified the problem for Johnston and then Lee. That makes me wonder whether Grant had spent some time examining McClellan’s campaign before launching his own. Aaahhhhh….a research question. Looks like I have to pick up Grant’s memoirs when I get home.

    1. As for those memoirs, call the Grant Cottage to see if they have a set. The money goes to a great cause, of course, and the price was good as well. I think I paid something like $180 for a first edition–

      1. Thanks. I’ve got the Library of America edition, but it’s boxed up for a home renovation. First edition….too cool! I forgot how, but somewhere along the line I picked up a first printing of Horace Porter’s memoir. Would look great next to Grant’s. Is the cottage selling reprints or actual originals?

    2. Grant examined McClellan’s plan in early 1864, at least to the extent that at the time he similarly envisioned landing his forces along the Urbanna axis or further south on the Peninsula. I believe that the move south of the James was new to him in June, 1864 and resulted from the positions established by the two armies at Cold Harbor, rendering moot the direct approach to Richmond, as well as the temporary lack of Rebels south of the river. As for whether Mac would have been better off down there, it’s hard to say – he probably would have fantasized another 100,000 enemy troops in that arena, added to the 175,000 – 200,000 he was facing on the Peninsula.

      1. Thanks. That he made the decision “on the fly” then is even more impressive. I agree with your assessment of McClellan as a combat leader 100%, but I haven’t written him off as a strategist. It’s been more than a decade since I gave him much thought, but IIRC, a relatively modern historian was trying to rehabilitate his reputation as the latter. His argument struck me as a pretty good one when I read it.

    3. As I remember, they were “used books” being sold. Funny story–I had never met Chris M, as I live in California. I had come East that summer to do some Ellsworth work and to hear a lecture on EE at the Cottage. While there, I found the Grant bio, complete with those cool maps and parchment papers covering the images, and the price was excellent–so I bought a set. A while later, Chris was at the Cottage working on his Grant book for ECW, and he bought a set as well. The man in the gift shop mentioned that he had just sold a set to a woman with purple hair earlier. That would be me!! So Chris and I crossed paths in the gift shop at the Grant Cottage!!

  11. It should be recalled that neither Lee nor Grant were happy with the Petersburg situation. True, Lee was pinned in a situation he had tried to avoid since Seven Days. Grant though was too weak to crush Lee and assure Lincoln’s reelection. Indeed, heavy losses and a string of battlefield defeats at Petersburg, caused Union morale to plunge. There were discussions of removing Lincoln from the ticket. That was when all eyes turned to Atlanta. Thankfully, Sherman did not pulverize his army on the way to Atlanta.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!